Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

In postwar Europe, Bonhoeffer’s letters came as a refreshing drink to people who had been beaten down by the failure of democracy and capitalism in the 1930’s, the destruction and loss of life of World War II, the evil revealed in the Holocaust, the establishment of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the dangers and sacrifices inherent in the Cold War. Liberal philosophy, traditional Christianity, Fascist nationalism and racism, and Soviet Communism were all gods that had failed. Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of life in this world and his call for personal commitment and Christian action appealed to many concerned with building a new future for Europe. The dramatic circumstances in which Letters and Papers from Prison was written provided hope and purpose to those who had already suffered greatly and who would otherwise become victims of despair.

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For the United States, World War II was a time of triumph that validated for most Americans their national institutions, including the churches. Although badly battered, Great Britain and its institutions had also stood the test of World War II. During the 1950’s in Great Britain and America, Bonhoeffer’s ideas were known primarily to those who were alert to theological trends.

In the 1960’s a new generation arose in the United States which questioned traditional institutions, ideas, and life-styles, especially as the Vietnam War cast discredit on those who led the nation. Similar attitudes arose in Great Britain as postwar austerity ended and emphasis turned to consumer goods and self-expression. Films and rock music became the principal modes of expression of the new spirit.

In the English-speaking world, Bonhoeffer had his greatest influence in the 1960’s. In 1963 a remarkably successful work of popular theology, Honest to God, by John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, gave wide currency to Bonhoeffer’s ideas. Ved Mehta, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, picked up the theme in The New Theologian (1965), in which Bonhoeffer was the principal figure. A revised and expanded edition of Letters and Papers from Prison appeared in 1967.

Bonhoeffer’s call for Christian commitment outside the established institutions struck a sympathetic chord with those who felt ignored, disdained, or betrayed by established society. Young people were adopting life-styles that...

(The entire section contains 569 words.)

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